Reducing Unwanted Grind in Your Game
Minimising the grinding that isn’t fun
Grind is a concept that no gamer wants to experience, and yet, it’s very hard to nail down what it is. Some genres like to boast that they’re about grinding, but they may not really be “a grind” to play. I’ve talked about the difficulty of defining grind previously, and it’s still an important element for designers to consider.
Defining the term
“Grind” or “grinding” can refer to different elements depending on the genre and player, but for me and for the purposes of this article, I’m going to apply the following definition:
Grind: The period of time in a game when the player’s ability to progress is reduced to a few restricted options, with nothing else moving them forward.
One of the key signs that your game becomes a grind is when there are things the player could be doing, but doing them would be a waste of time at this point. A famous example is from the MMO genre; if the player runs out of quests at their level range to do, doing lower level quests will not earn them anywhere near the experience needed to keep going.
Due to new quests and content being locked to certain level thresholds, if you get stuck in a position where there are no quests available, you will have to grind regular enemies until you hit the next chain.
In single-player games, grinding exists in different forms. For strategy games, a grind could occur during a slow mid or end-game. In this case, the player knows how to win or to proceed, but they need to go through the motions until the opportunity arises to actually win or proceed. The RPG genre has been built on the use of grinding as a way to get around a particularly tough fight (that is, if you can’t beat a particular enemy, do some grinding to gain strength and then try again).
For many players, the act of grinding is viewed as a necessary part of progression. But I’d argue that it’s far from ideal from a game design point of view.
The easiest way to view grind in a video game is as a way for designers to pad out the experience, where the character of that padding feels artificial. This concept speaks directly to the whole quality versus quantity debate that gamers routinely engage in around the length of a given title.
While it might seem great on the surface to have a game that requires 30+ hours to complete, my question would be how many of those hours are actually engaging for the player? I’ve lost count of the number of games that just dragged on at the mid-game, to the point where the quality of the overall experience suffered.
One of the most annoying aspects of grind is the scenario I mentioned above, where the player knows what to do in order to proceed but they’re artificially blocked from said progression due to the game’s design. Playing through Cultist Simulator, I’m at the point where I’m not naturally progressing through my in-game choices and actions — at least, not outside the random stats from the rewards I get. And of all the possible rewards that can drop, I’m at the point where there’s one specific item I need to win the game.
Randomised rewards/drops (often referred to as “RNG”), can be an absolute killer for progression in video games. In previous discussions about grinding in video games, I’ve said that the player should always feel like they’re moving forward no matter what they are doing. With progression based on an RNG system, progress is not only not guaranteed, but it’s arguably pulled beyond the player’s agency — that is, the player’s progress is subject to randomised numbers rather than their own in-game decisions and actions.
A final major example of the kind of undesirable grind I’m talking about here revolves around the player being required to repeat content that they’ve already done. Examples would be repeating quests for resources, fighting the same boss over and over again, and so on. There are, of course, some games which are almost entirely based on this type of grinding — Monster Hunter would be a good example.
Arguably, there are ways that developers can make this type of grinding more enjoyable (or at least, there are ways they can mitigate the truly painful aspects of continuous grinding).
Cutting out the fat
To outright eliminate — or at least mitigate — grind, the first step for any developer (regardless of the game’s design) is to look at the potential trouble areas. At what point do you see people quitting, and is there a period in your game where most players are regularly getting stuck? Regular play testing is a must in terms of effectively identifying these areas.
From that point forward, the question is how you can add more viable progression options that players will feel are more directly connected to their own agency. One of the simplest — yet most effective — systems is known as “milling”. Milling is a term used in collecting card games (CCGs) and free-to-play (F2P)-style games; it is, simply, the act of taking a resource or item you don’t want and enabling you to convert it into something you do.
Clear exaples of this would be fairy dust in Hearthstone, or tradeable heirlooms in Darkest Dungeon. Providing more options for viable player progress will decrease the chances of the game becoming an unenjoyable grind-fest.
There are some titles that go even further to reduce the feeling of unwanted grind by ensuring that any action the player does will contribute towards their experience/levelling up.
The right length
In the past, it was generally considered acceptable for games to take dozens of hours to complete — I’d argue that many games artificially padded their content to make sure players felt like they were getting their money’s worth. But in today’s market — where such a high volume of games are being released all the time — I believe it’s more important to ensure that the experience from start-to-finish is genuinely engaging, regardless of overall length. This is true even if it means generally “shorter” games.
For ravenous players who always want more, developers can consider introducing alternate modes or multiple difficulty settings to enable these players to make multiple approaches to the experience. The baseline — or “core” — of the game should be the best possible version of the game though, regardless of length. It’s theoretically easy to continually add padding to a game, but it can be much tougher to surgically cut away the pieces that aren’t working to enable the engaging core to shine through.
I’m going to wrap it up here; thank you for reading this piece. I want to leave you with a question (feel free to add a comment below): can you think of any games you’ve played that were too long?